Friday, May 17, 2013

Highlight #8: Death by Beer Bar in Hainaut.

This one is easy to explain.

The Walloon city of Tournai has a case for being Belgium's oldest. It's got plenty of sites to sight, like the eight-centuries-old Notre Dame cathedral, and a bustling Grand-Place with oodles of cafés.

As a beer town, though, it's sleepy. Most of those cafés are tied houses to various regional breweries offering little in the way of surprises. Among those, the Beffroi and Imperatrice are probably your best bets.

For its attractions and size Tournai ought to do better. There was a bar called Cave à Bière, but it closed and was still shut when I went last summer. (It appears to have been resurrected more recently as a less beery all-you-can-eat rib shack. Not that there is anything wrong with that.)

But we did have a tip, short on details: the Cornwall.

In certain Belgian bars there is an effortless overlap between metal, Celtic, Gothic and medieval. I'm thinking of the Porte Noire in Brussels as an example. Maybe you need to be non-European to understand what I mean by effortless in this context. For us, heavy metal was real but all the Iron Maiden-esque dungeon and torture imagery was really cool euro-fakery. Likewise, we are overly fascinated by castles. But when a European metal bar puts up some medieval weapons and torture implements, it is not only a fake heavy metal thing. There is some history there. Particularly in a place like Tournai.

Not to say the Cornwall is anything like a museum. My point is, its tongue-in-cheek evil is cool and breezy. Of course there are sickles and (fake) decapitated heads on display. Of course there is no actual list of the 150 or so beers. You need to go to the fridges and have a look yourself. Among them were De Ranke, Ellezellois, La Rulles and St. Bernardus. Unfortunately I stuck with the theme and went for a Gruut Inferno, which I think was named for its blazing flavor of alcohol. Followed it with an XX Bitter just to put the fire out.

The combination of death, darkness, youth and tattoos may frighten away the normals but we found it all very friendly. Narrow place though, with just a handful of tables. More action around the bar, and the party does seem to spill outside at times. The address is 14 Rue des Puits l'Eau, opening at 3 p.m. most days and 5 p.m. on Sundays.

The little beer-mat sign hanging under that fellow's neck says mauvais payeur. Deadbeat. In other words, he didn't pay his bill.

That's a highlight from a Belgian beer swing. Will I ever get to #1 at this rate? I have my doubts. Here's an explanation.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Highlight #9: Idealistic Beer, Idealistic Prices.

We were getting toward the end of a day bouncing around the Ardennes when we finally went in search of the mysterious Periple en la Demeure.

So we found it, and we drank, and we solved no great mysteries. Had a nice time though.

Periple en la Demeure--something like "Journey in the Abode"--is the home of Brasserie Oxymore, in a village called Limerlé. It's an easy drive from the Trois Fourquets, makers of Lupulus, or the Vielle Forge B&B, home of Inter-Pol. You could easily do all three in an afternoon, rolling into evening.

Oxymore is one of several tiny outfits that get a full listing in Good Beer Guide Belgium because it is officially a brewery, even if it doesn't brew on any sort of regular schedule. I'd never met anyone who had actually been there and tried the beer. So someone has to do it, right?

Let's get this out of the way: I still haven't had their beers. They were all out of Oxymore. You can see it scratched out in the photo of the chalkboard. It was said to be an odd blond ale around 5% strength.

They did, however, have Saison Dupont at €1.50 a glass. There are more direct routes to my heart, but only my wife and children know them.

You see, they are interested in many things at the Periple en la Demeure. Profit is not one. I am a huge fan of communitarian ideals when they arrive in the form of world-class beer, bought cheaply. It's not a business. It seems to be more of a project based on the arts and an ideal of agrarian sustainability. You can come to play music, screen films, bake bread, talk philosophy, plant veggies, or raise a cow. I'd like to be more specific, but I'm not sure I understand all of it. It's not that I don't speak French. It's just that it's been years since I was fluent in idealism.

For our purposes: Periple has a bar, with more reliable hours in summertime. Weekends only, I think. Atmosphere is honest, simple. There are a few tables in the lot, while the bar is cellar-like and cozy, with a lot of brick and artwork. It sells a few wonderful beers at cheap prices, and even makes its own from time to time. And the people there--at least the ones we met--are really tickled that travelers might pop in for a beer.

The one that Oxymore makes is no longer called Oxymore. It's a new recipe, called Hypallage. So they are continuing with a theme of literary devices. You can see the old-timey label here. Benoit Toussaint of the Periple told me that it's a red-amber ale of about 6% strength. The concept is "low mountain beer, brewed with pride."

This is my translation of his French, so apologies in advance, but he called it a "peasant beer, evolving, exploring the possibilities of brewing with a certain tendency toward building autonomy." In modern English we might say sustainability, using ingredients that are as local as possible. (I have no doubt that they would grow all their own if they could.) He said specifically that they want malt made from local barley, and that they would like to distribute to places that share their ideals. That includes searching for local solutions, and the belief in décroissance, or degrowth. Making a smaller footprint, and so forth.

"In other words, we reason and act for beer as for bread, since the products are cousins. The bread we bake ourselves, stone, wood-fired, and prepare with local grains. We grind in a watermill that we restored and returned to work. We plan to increase the production capacity of the brewery. In summary, this is not just a beer, it is also a process."

The cynical side of me finds most of that very naïve. But here is a really elegant way to shame cynics and get them to think seriously about your ideals: Sell them excellent beer at low prices.

I'd be willing to sweep aside all remaining skepticism if the beer turns out well. Let me know if you find out.

That's a highlight from a Belgian beer swing. Will I ever get to #1 at this rate? I have my doubts. Here's an explanation if you're wondering what I'm up to.